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Italian violinist and composer (1653-1713)
Portrait of Arcangelo Corelli by the Irish painter Hugh Howard (1697)
Baptismal records indicate that Corelli was born on 17 February 1653 in the small Romagna town of Fusignano, then in the diocese of Ferrara, in the Papal States. His ancestors had been in Fusignano and land-owners there since 1506, when a Corelli moved to the area from Rome. Although apparently prosperous, they were almost certainly not of the nobility, as several fanciful accounts of the composer's genealogy subsequently claimed.[a] Corelli's father, from whom he took the name Arcangelo, died five weeks before the composer's birth. Consequently, he was raised by his mother, Santa (née Ruffini, or Raffini), alongside four elder siblings.
The wealth of anecdotes and legends attached to Corelli contrast sharply with the paucity of reliable contemporary evidence documenting events in his life. This gap is especially pronounced for his formative years, including his musical education; traditional accounts of a highly idealized childhood have long been debunked.[b]
According to the poet Giovanni Mario Crescimbeni, who presumably knew the composer well, Corelli initially studied music under a priest in the nearby town of Faenza, and then in Lugo, before moving in 1666 to Bologna. A major centre of musical culture of the time, Bologna had a flourishing school of violinists associated with Ercole Gaibara and his pupils, Giovanni Benvenuti and Leonardo Brugnoli. Reports by later sources link Corelli's musical studies with several master violinists, including Benvenuti, Brugnoli, Bartolomeo Laurenti and Giovanni Battista Bassani. Although historically plausible, these accounts remain largely unconfirmed, as does the claim that the papal contralto Matteo Simonelli first taught him to write in the "Palestrina style".[c] A remark Corelli later made to a patron suggests that his musical education focused mainly on the violin.[d]
Chronicles of the Accademia Filarmonica of Bologna indicate that Corelli was accepted as a member by 1670, at the exceptionally young age of seventeen. The credibility of this attribution has been disputed. Although the nickname Il Bolognese appears on the title-pages of Corelli's first three published sets of works (Opus 1 to 3), the duration of his stay in Bologna remains unclear.
Anecdotes of trips outside Italy to France, Germany and Spain lack any contemporary evidence. For example, the anecdote that Corelli's continental fame stemmed from a trip to Paris at the age of nineteen, where he was chased away by an envious Jean-Baptiste Lully, seems to have originated with Jean-Jacques Rousseau. It was also claimed that Corelli spent time in Germany in the service of Maximilian II Emanuel, Elector of Bavaria (supposedly in 1681), as well as in the house of his friend and fellow violinist-composer Cristiano Farinelli (between 1680 and 1685).
Although it is unclear quite when Corelli arrived in Rome, he was certainly active there by 1675, when "Arcangelo Bolognese" (as he was referred to) was engaged to play as one of the supporting violinists in lenten oratorios at the church of San Giovanni dei Fiorentini, as well as in the French national celebrations held each year on 25 August at San Luigi dei Francesi and during the ordination of a member of the powerful Chigi family at Santi Domenico e Sisto. In August 1676, he was already playing second violin to the renowned Carlo Mannelli at San Luigi dei Francesi. Although Rome did not have any permanent orchestra providing stable employment for instrumentalists, Corelli rapidly made a name for himself, playing in a variety of ensembles sponsored by wealthy patrons, such as Cardinal Benedetto Pamphili, for whom he played in Lenten oratorios at San Marcello from 1676 to 1679.
In 1687 Corelli led the festival performances of music for Queen Christina of Sweden. He was also a favorite of Cardinal Pietro Ottoboni, grandnephew of another Cardinal Pietro Ottoboni, who in 1689 became Pope Alexander VIII. From 1689 to 1690 he was in Modena. The Duke of Modena was generous to him. In 1706 Corelli was elected a member of the Pontificia Accademia degli Arcadi (the Arcadian Academy of Rome). He received the Arcadian name of Arcomelo Erimanteo.
In 1708 he returned to Rome, living in the palace of Cardinal Ottoboni. His visit to Naples, at the invitation of the king, took place in the same year. The style of execution introduced by Corelli and preserved by his pupils, such as Francesco Geminiani, Pietro Locatelli, Pietro Castrucci, Francesco Antonio Bonporti, Giovanni Stefano Carbonelli, Francesco Gasparini, and others, was of vital importance for the development of violin playing. It has been said that the paths of all of the famous violinist-composers of 18th-century Italy led to Arcangelo Corelli, who was their "iconic point of reference".
However, Corelli used only a limited portion of his instrument's capabilities. This may be seen from his writings. The parts for violin very rarely proceed above D on the highest string, sometimes reaching the E in fourth position on the highest string. The story has been told and retold that Corelli refused to play a passage that extended to A in altissimo in the overture to Handel's oratorio The Triumph of Time and Truth (premiered in Rome, 1708), and felt seriously offended when the composer (32 years his junior) played the note.
Musical society in Rome also owed much to Corelli. He was received in the highest circles of the aristocracy, and for a long time presided at the celebrated Monday concerts in the palace of Cardinal Ottoboni.
Corelli died in Rome in possession of a fortune of 120,000 marks and a valuable collection of works of art and fine violins, the only luxury in which he had indulged. He left both to his benefactor and friend, who generously made over the money to Corelli's relatives. Corelli is buried in the Pantheon at Rome.
^Some family trees even attempted to trace Corelli's ancestors back to Noah. Contemporary documents in the Piancastelli collection in Forlì provide valuable background information about the genealogy and character of the Corelli family. Maps indicate that the Corellis owned a conspicuous quantity of agricultural land around Fusignano. Despite their religious piety, the Corellis appear to have been embroiled in a conflict with the Calcagnini family, the established feudal rulers of Fusignano; in 1632, the papal executioner beheaded and quartered a certain Rodolfo Corelli after a failed uprising in which his family house was torn down.
^Most famously, Abbot Cesare Felice Laurenti's late eighteenth century "History of Fusignano" had Corelli born into a family of noble descent. As a young child, he is said to have been so transfixed by the violin playing of his local priest that he begged for lessons, which were conceded by another priest in the neighbouring town of San Savino, where the boy walked every day, come rain or shine. While sheltering from the sun along the road, so the story goes, his magnificent violin playing would leave the locals entranced. Having rapidly surpassed his teacher, Corelli is said to have defied the wishes of his father (who in this account is still alive) in order to study in Faenza, where the young genius is casually discovered by Cardinal Ottoboni, who recommends him to the pope, who in turn promptly summons him to Rome. Fictitious accounts such as this were comprehensively exposed in the pioneering biographies of Carlo Piancastelli (1914) and Marc Pincherle (1933).
^The plausible notion that Corelli was taught by Benvenuti was fostered by Padre Martini in 1748 in his capacity as official chronicler of the Accademia Filarmonica of Bologna. Martini also states that Corelli secretly learnt Brugnoli's distinctive performance style. The tradition that Laurenti taught Corelli was transmitted by the eighteenth-century English music historian, Charles Burney. The claim that Corelli was taught by Bassani was contained in a poem published in 1693 dedicated to Henry Purcell and then picked up by both Burney and his rival, Sir John Hawkins. Previously considered chronologically implausible, the knowledge that Bassani was active in Ferrara from 1667 has led to a reassessment of this possibility (though a story of an amorous connection between Corelli and Bassani's daughter is almost certainly an invention). The presumed link with Matteo Simonelli in Rome derives from the writings of the castrato Andrea Adami da Bolsena. Opinions regarding the historical credibility of such claims vary.
^Replying in 1679 to a request by Count Fabrizio Laderchi from Faenza for Corelli to compose a sonata for violin and lute, the composer acknowledges that hitherto his Sinfonie have been written merely to exalt the violin.
Piancastelli, Carlo (in Italian) Fusignano ad Arcangelo Corelli: nel secondo centenario dalla morte 1913, Bologna, Stabilimento poligrafico emiliano, 1914 [Reprinted 2011, Nabu Press ISBN9781246456721]
Pincherle, Marc, Corelli et son Temps Paris, Félix Alcan, 1933. [Translated, Russell, Hubert E M (1956) Corelli: His Life, His Work. New York. Reprinted 1968, The Norton Library, and 1979, Da Capo Press]
Allsop, Peter (1999). Arcangelo Corelli: New Orpheus of Our Times. Oxford University Press, 1999. ISBN978-0-19-816562-0.
Philippe Borer, The Sweet Power of Strings: reflections on the musical idea of dolce, in Exploring Virtuosities, ed. by Ch. Hoppe, Hildesheim, Olms, 2018, pp. 211-240